Nonalignment Redux? Explaining India’s Balancing Act Over Russian Invasion of Ukraine
- Dependence on Russian arms and managing the threat from China are among the many factors that account for New Delhi’s muted reaction.
India’s relatively muted reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been noticed by all the key players in the conflict, particularly by Ukrainian Ambassador to India, Igor Polikha, who asserted that India’s reaction did not go far enough. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called on both sides to resolve the issue through diplomacy – a statement that had also frustrated the United States. On Friday, India, currently a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council, abstained on the resolution denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while Russia, the current president of the council, vetoed it anyway.
At his press conference on February 24, President Biden mentioned that consultations with India remained unresolved. India’s reluctance to criticize Russia over the most aggressive action seen in Europe since World War II contrasted with Biden’s later statement that “any nation that countenances Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association.” This is in sharp contrast to India’s historic record of taking positions based on issues rather than alignments as befitted a Non-Aligned Movement founder.
But perhaps this was not the time to be nonaligned or worse, neutral. However, India’s relationship with both Russia and America puts it in a difficult position. And President Putin’s recent meeting in December 2021with Modi suggests that India’s historic strategic relationship with Russia is still ongoing, albeit with decreasing returns to both parties.
The Indo-Russian friendship goes back nearly seven decades to the early years of the Cold War. At a time when U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had famously declared “Neutrality is immoral!” in response to India’s move towards what eventually became nonalignment, the visit by Soviet leaders Bulganin and Khrushchev to India contrasted notably where they welcomed India’s nonaligned position and were content as long as there was no alliance with the U.S.
This bit of adroit diplomacy appealed to India and thus began a tilt that included the purchase and later co-manufacture of fighter jets, the purchase of most defense equipment from the Soviets, the signing of the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty in 1971, a robust rupee-ruble trade that worked for both states that were short of hard currency, and reached a high point with the Soviet Union’s unmistakable threat to the U.S. navy’s show of potential intervention in the Bangladesh War.
Over the years, India responded in kind purchasing defense equipment almost exclusively from the Soviet Union including MiG fighter aircraft and later Su 30s. A variety of tanks of the T designation (54,55, 62, 72, 80, 90) and many helicopters and other defense purchases put India squarely in the Soviet camp (with a few exceptions from France and Britain).
Notably, India did not criticize the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its left of the center model of statist control of the economy was approved in the Soviet camp and met with ire by the American proponents of (neo)liberal capitalism. India’s enmity with China was matched by Soviet splintering of relations with that country in 1964 and border clashes in 1969.
All this changed with the simultaneous ending of the Cold War and India’s switch from state-dominated development to economic liberalization. India naturally gravitated towards the United States, the world’s largest economy, while Russia languished – a victim of IMF and neoclassical suggestions on a rapid transition to capitalism that proved disastrous.
Russia’s second coming was under Putin, who re-established the image of a stable, if increasingly authoritarian, state after the laughable comedy that was the Yeltsin presidency. The new Russia has been drawn to the new China – which embraced state-sponsored capitalism and seeks to establish a Sino-centric capitalist order replacing American hegemony with its own. The former close friends India and Russia were therefore courting rivals America and China respectively.
While Russia pursued a revisionist path seeking shades of its former glory by allying with another revisionist power, India has pursued an economic relationship with the United States where both benefit from the status quo of American hegemony. The one major barrier to Indo-U.S. relations, that of India’s nuclear status of possessing weapons not allowed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), was removed by President George W. Bush in the mid-2000s with the U.S. giving India an exception.
However, India has continued its defense relationship with Russia much to America’s chagrin. It has proved easier to purchase Russian equipment which is compatible with existing defense systems and continue the decades-old relationship than move to an American source, possibly because the latter has more conditions, is more expensive, and is more liable to be stopped by Congressional sanctions on issues such as nuclear technology and human rights violations.
Indeed, India and Russia signed a 10-year defense agreement in December 2021 in the face of U.S. opposition for the purchase of SAM 400 missiles and AK 203 assault rifles. A decade ago, even as Indo-U.S. ties improved, India eschewed a U.S. fighter jet for its air force in favor of the French-made Rafale, underlining its desire to keep options open in defense purchases.
The problem, for India, is that a resurgent and aggressive China has underlined its status as the primary threat and in recent years has provoked too many border conflicts to ignore. As the realist school of international relations suggests, India has sought an alliance with other enemies of China, finding them in the U.S., Australia, and Japan, in the new arrangement popularly called the Quad. Unfortunately for India, this comes at a time when Russia has tilted sharply towards China as well, for fuel exports, weapons sales, and a meeting of like-authoritarian minds, showcased at the two leaders’ joint presence at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
It is necessary for India to follow a balancing act, therefore, to appease both the economic and increasingly long-term security partner, the United States, but also maintain the goodwill of its longtime defense supplier, Russia. This explains Indian reticence in criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For both India and Russia, their mutual relationship is beneficial: India has secured hassle-free defense supplies unencumbered by legislative sanction, and Russia sells nearly 23 percent of its defense sales to India.
The open break with the international convention of not invading countries in the post-Cold War era appears to have been broken with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and both India and Russia will find it more difficult to balance their relationships. Even the invasion itself, as some observers have noted, has suggested possibilities for other powers, notably China over Taiwan, and Indian policy over an already annexed Kashmir.
India’s recent authoritarian streak may align it better with Russia at the current time. However, its historic record of moral and ethical decisions suggests that criticizing an unprovoked attack is necessary, not just for India’s good name, but for global solidarity, a commodity in short supply currently.
Dr. Milind Thakar is a Professor of International Relations in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Indianapolis.